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Authors: Colin Cotterill

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Humorous

The Merry Misogynist

BOOK: The Merry Misogynist
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Colin Cotterill

The Merry Misogynist

The sixth book in the
Dr Siri Paiboun
series

2009

Dr. Siri is confronted with a deadly Casanova targeting lovely young women.

In poverty-stricken 1978 Laos, a man with a truck from the city was ‘somebody,’ a catch for even the prettiest village virgin. The corpse of one of these bucolic beauties turns up in Dr. Siri’s morgue and his curiosity is piqued. The victim was tied to a tree and strangled but she had not, as the doctor had expected, been raped, although her flesh had been torn. And though the victim had clear, pale skin over most of her body, her hands and feet were gnarled, callused, and blistered.

On a trip to the hinterlands, Siri discovers that the beautiful female corpse bound to a tree has already risen to the status of a rural myth. This has happened many times before. He sets out to investigate this unprecedented phenomenon – a serial killer in peaceful Buddhist Laos – only to discover when he has identified the murderer that not only pretty maidens are at risk. Seventy-three-year-old coroners can be victims, too.

1

FIVE DEAD WIVES

B
y the time the calendar pages had flipped around to 1978, Vientiane, the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, had become a dour place to live. The fun had been squeezed out of it like the hard-to-come-by juice of a durian. It was flat and colourless and starting to feel sorry for itself.

The novice socialist administration that had ousted the six-hundred-year-old monarchy was starting to realize its resume didn’t match the job description. In the two years since taking over the country the prime minister had survived four assassination attempts. The army was moonlighting in timber exports and Pathet Lao troops were black-marketing petrol. A new class had been added to those sent to the north for re-education: corrupt socialist officials.

The numbers told the tale. The per-capita income was less than ninety US dollars, and over a hundred thousand people had already fled the city to try their luck in the Thai refugee camps across the Mekhong. Eighty-five per cent of those remaining in the country were subsistence farmers yet for the first time in its history Laos had resorted to importing rice. An unprecedented drought the previous year had resulted in the Department of Agriculture’s predicting a famine for ‘78. It appeared even the Lord Buddha had deserted his flock. Decrees had been passed limiting private commerce but that hadn’t made a lot of difference as there was hardly any money to spend. The five hundred million dollars pumped into the city by the US imperialists during the Vietnam War had well and truly dried up. The expressions on the faces of the people who lived in the quiet capital city advertised the city’s joylessness. In fact, on March 11 of that year, there were only two truly happy men in the entire country.

One was seventy-three, soon to be seventy-four-year-old Dr Siri Paiboun, the national coroner. It was astounding that a man so ancient, with so much bad karma tallied up against him, had been able to find any joy at all. Two years earlier, his dream of retirement had been bullied out of him and he had been designated the country’s only medical examiner. It was the nadir of a lifetime of unfortunate decisions: decades of trying to understand his own Communist Party, decades of marriage to a woman too focused on revolution to start the family he craved, decades of putting together soldiers broken from the countless battles of a never-ending civil war. What was one more unwanted job after a litany such as that?

But then, as if by a belated good fate, widower Siri had been reunited with Madame Daeng, the freedom fighter, still pretty at sixty-six, still carrying a torch for her silver-haired doctor. The couple had tumbled head over heels in love and, just two months earlier, they had married. The honeymoon showed no signs of abating and the smile hadn’t left the coroner’s lips since.

The other truly happy person on that steamy March day was the man who some knew as Phan. He’d just done away with his fifth wife and, as usual, nobody was any the wiser. How could a man not be overjoyed at such success?

 

“Are you Dr Siri?”

“Yes.”

“Dr Siri Paiboun?”

“Yes.”

“The coroner?”

“Three out of three; you win a coconut.”

“You have to come with me.”

Siri stood at the foot of the stairs that led to the upper floor of Madame Daeng’s noodle shop on Fa Ngum Street. He wore only a pair of Muay Thai boxing shorts and a crust of sleepy dust. His thick white hair was tousled and his eyes puffy. He hadn’t planned on being awake before eight and it was only a quarter past six. Daeng had gone down to set up for the morning noodle rush and had responded to the loud knocking at the shutters. She had checked the man’s credentials before rousing her hungover husband. Even though Siri was only 153 centimetres in his sandals he still managed to rise half a head above the intruder in the slate grey safari suit.

“Who are you?” Siri asked.

“Is this your place of abode?”

“Has anybody told you that answering questions with questions inevitably leads to your vanishing up your own – ?”

“Siri!” Madame Daeng caught him just in time. It was unwise to rile a bureaucrat, even a very small one. Both men looked up when she pulled back the double shutters to give the Mekhong River a better view of the inside of her shop. The early sunlight glittered on the water like a shoal of day stars. A solitary fisherman rowed his boat against the current and seemed to be travelling backwards – perhaps more than seemed.

“As I told your…as I told the comrade,” the man said, “I, am Koomki from the Department of Housing Allocation.”

Siri’s stomach clenched. Somewhere deep down he’d been expecting this visit. He backed up two steps and sat down on the bare wood. Daeng had begun to prepare the ingredients for the day’s
feu
noodle soup at the rear of the shop.

“Dr Siri,” Koomki continued, “we have an inconsistency in our files.”

“And what would that be?” Siri asked as if he didn’t know.

“You, Comrade.”

“Madame Daeng,” Siri called to his wife, “did you hear that? I’m an inconsistency.”

“That’s why I married you, sweetness.”

The man from housing blushed.

“I think you’ll realize soon enough that this is hardly a joking matter,” Koomki said. “Is this your place of abode or not?”

Siri resented Koomki’s tone. “No.”

“You’re standing here naked but for a pair of shorts and this lady is clearly your wife – ”

“Oh, no, I’m not,” Daeng interrupted.

“Not his wife?”

“Not a lady.”

The man was plainly out of his depth with this couple. He held up his clipboard to his damp bulgy eyes and read from it. “Dr Siri, you are registered as the householder of allocated government accommodation unit 22B742 at That Luang.”

“Then that’s obviously where I live,” Siri assured him.

“Well, it’s clear to our department that although there are a number of people living in that bungalow, you are not among them.”

“And what’s your definition of living?” Siri asked.

“I…er…”

“I assume you have one?”

“It’s…it’s the place where you sleep.”

“Really? So insomniacs would never qualify for government housing?”

“What?”

“You have to admit our government’s causing us a lot of sleepless nights. In fact, I’d wager most people aren’t sleeping at all. I do have a bed on which to lay my head at my house but when I find myself wanting at two a.m., I climb on my motorcycle and come here to find a little rest.”

“Or to the house of one of his mistresses,” Madame Daeng added.

“Quite.” Siri nodded.

Koomki turned to Daeng, who was smiling broadly beside the hearth. The steam from her broth curled around her face and filled the occupants of the room with a wanton desire to eat. The stomach of the man from Housing growled.

“Comrade,” he said to Madame Daeng, “I warn you that lying to a government cadre is a very serious offence.”

“Honestly, I barely see him,” she said with an earnest look in her eyes. “As you’ll know from your files there’s only me registered here. Of course, I do have other paramours popping in from time to time.”

Siri smiled and scratched the tingle where his left earlobe used to be.

Koomki seemed to realize that he was having the mickey taken out of him. As he didn’t have humour to fall back on, he resorted to regulations.

“Comrades, according to the rules, you are not allowed to sublet government housing. Thanks to the benevolence of the republic, you are given permission to remain in your house rent free. As soon as you desert it, you forfeit the right to reside there. You certainly may not rent it out.”

Siri nodded. “Well, then there’s no problem, is there?”

“Why not?”

“Because, a, as we’ve established, I do live there, and b, none of the people in my house pay rent. They’re my friends.”

“Your friends?” The man laughed for the first time. “Then you’re a very popular man, Dr Siri.”

“Thank you.”

“Yesterday I counted nineteen people coming to and going from the That Luang residence. Eight of them have registered your house as their official domicile. There was also a monk who we have no record of at all. What’s a monk doing at your house, Comrade?”

“He’s my spiritual adviser. You know, like when the prime minister’s wife sneaks off to the temple to ask about fortuitous dates for staging national events?”

“Then I suggest he’s advising you subliminally because he would appear to be deaf and dumb. He seemed unable or unwilling to tell me to which temple he is attached. And we all know that monks are not permitted to stay in private housing. Which brings me to the question of prostitution.”

Siri raised his bushy white eyebrows and turned to his wife. “Do we know any questions of prostitution, my dear?”

“The question ‘How much?’ springs to mind,” she replied.

The Housing man was getting more and more flustered and the scent of Daeng’s noodles was very seductive.

“The question refers to two young women residing at your house who have criminal records for engaging in prostitution.”

“Tsk, tsk, and they’re plying their trade from my house?”

“Not exactly.”

“That’s similar to ‘no’, isn’t it?”

“We are still investigating that charge. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been sent here to fetch you. We have a hearing scheduled for you at seven thirty.”

“Am I under arrest?” Siri stood and held out his wrists.

“Well, no. I’m not a – ”

“Because if I’m not under arrest and if you don’t have at least four burly thugs waiting outside to haul me away, it looks like you’re going to have to conduct your little trial without me.”

“That isn’t an option, Comrade.” The man’s voice was beginning to crack. He fumbled through the sheets on his board. “I have a summons here signed by the director of Housing.”

“Oh, then that’s different.” Siri nodded. “Could I get a better look at that?”

Koomki held it out and, in one smooth sweeping movement, unexpected in a man of his age, Siri grasped the sheet in his hand and was halfway across the shop. Daeng took a step back. Siri folded the paper neatly before placing it on the earthenware hearth in which burned a merry fire. It crumpled to black within seconds. Where the mouth of the man from Housing had previously been, there was now a large gaping hole.

“And, if you’ll excuse me,” Siri said, wiping his hands, “I intend to have a little breakfast before heading off to work.”

The man seemed unable to move. “That was government property,” he managed finally.

Siri went over to Koomki, put his arm around him, and led him to the front of the shop.

“You blatantly destroyed government property,” the man stammered in case Siri hadn’t heard the first time.

“Then it’s an eye for an eye. You see, I am the national coroner, which makes me government property too. I am owned exclusively by the Justice Department. Yet you come here and attempt to destroy my reputation. A little slip of paper is cheap by comparison, don’t you think?”

Siri had Koomki on the uneven pavement now, but before sending him on his way, Siri leaned close to the man’s wet eyes and said, “So please tell your colleagues that if they have any charges to bring against me, they should have me picked up by the police. They may then pursue my case through the courts. Otherwise, leave me alone. I’m not going to get into a panic about a couple of minor officials in an office playing pocket politburo. And if you even consider confiscating my house I’ll have you up in front of the Party union representative before you can get to verse two of ‘The Red Flag’. I’ve been a fully paid-up member for longer than our own prime minister. Don’t forget that.”

He launched Koomki on his way and stood back. It was always good to have a little sport before breakfast. Siri laughed and took in a breath of early Vientiane. It had become a peaceful place. The only ugly sounds floated across the river: motorcycles and tape recorders, loudspeaker trucks urging people to buy plastic buckets and sweet potatoes. Somewhere, a man was shouting at his wife, sharing their family scandal with his Lao brothers and sisters. Thais weren’t a race you’d ever accuse of peace and quiet. Their televisions and radios had two adjustments on the dial: off and loud.

BOOK: The Merry Misogynist
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